It’s hard to think of a New York restaurant that has so purposefully put itself through more alterations than Momofuku Ssam Bar (207 Second Avenue, 212-254-3500). Launched as a Korean burrito joint in 2006, David Chang ditched the fast casual concept a year later in favor of a more freeform, dressed-down approach to fine dining. Before Team Momo fermented trouble out in Brooklyn at the Momofuku Culinary Lab, Ssam Bar’s kitchen was long the place for experimentation. Now, for the first time in over six years, Chang and Momofuku Ssam Bar executive chef Matthew Rudofker (who’s been with the restaurant group since 2010) have released a new and improved ssam into the wild. (And by the way, “the word ‘ssam’ just means something that’s wrapped,” says the chef.)
“It’s always something that we’ve thought about because that’s how this restaurant started,” says Rudofker. “We put one — a bulgogi lamb ssam — on the lunch menu, then after an afternoon of gorging ourselves on wraps, we said, ‘You know what? Let’s just make a bunch of them.'”
Gone are the flour tortillas which would wilt, soaked through with liquid pork fat. Their replacements are chive pancakes (rolled out by hand each morning), which still come as an accompaniment to the rotisserie duck lunch that’s been a fixture of the restaurant since 2011. Rudofker prefers the chive pancake because “they’re really flaky and have a lot more depth of flavor than your average flour tortilla. Then we asked ourselves, ‘How can we construct the ssam to be more durable and better?’ So now we line them with bibb lettuce to help them keep their structure.”
As an homage to the wrap that started it all, the kitchen serves an “o.g. momofuku ssam,” which, like its 2006 counterpart, is founded on the same fat-capped pork shoulder that would become the basis for Ssam Bar 2.0’s signature bo ssam feasts that have since expanded to include whole rotisserie ducks and aged ribeye steaks. The throwback recipe also features kimchi and a slick of hoisin sauce, but if the beans taste different, it’s because they are. “The beans became a big focal point of it,” says Rudofker. “We started thinking about a lot of ingredients that we use in the restaurant, and one that has so much flavor is fermented black beans. Before, we were just using regular boiled adzuki beans in the ssams, which are mild on their own, so when we started experimenting, we tried making ssams with just fermented black beans, but the flavor was so intense that it overpowered everything else. Now we’ve found a balance.”
The o.g. ssam is an absolute jog down memory lane for those who enjoyed them the first time around, but once Chang and Rudofker got started, they couldn’t help but flesh out the ssam offerings into their own section on the lunch menu. Joining the pork are seven spice lamb and rotisserie chicken. The duck over rice (served with lettuce and scallion pancakes for wrapping) is listed under the ssam section now, too. There’s also a rotating daily rotisserie selection, which has featured a long list of proteins including short rib, brisket, tongue, pork neck, pork country ribs, pork belly, lamb chuck, lamb shoulder, lamb leg, lamb neck, and veal breast. “We have this amazing piece of machinery over here, and it’s been a great experiment to just really try and cook as many delicious and tasty meats off of it as we can,” says Rudofker.
While it’s nice having the o.g. back in our lives, it’s the seven spice lamb ssam that left the most memorable impression, in part due to the slightly chewy roasted rice which Rudofker uses to pad the beast. The grains add a textural dimension to the sandwich that’s missing from both the pork and the chicken (which comes with ginger-scallion sauce, bean sprouts, and shiitake mushrooms), and together with matchsticks of daikon radish, the spicy Korean chili condiment called gochujang, and a toss of torn Thai basil leaves, the result is similar to a multi-layered roti, with sweet, savory and herbal notes cut by a low hum of chili pepper heat.
At the beginning of the year, Chang tweeted about the possibility of bringing back the original version of Ssam Bar. While a new Ssam outpost is probably a ways off (and if it isn’t, reps are keeping mum), we’re happy to report that, indeed, this is the next best thing for ssam nostalgists. For now, the wraps are served at lunch and brunch only, and cost $12. Check the next page for more ssam-tastic photos.